NATS airspace plans: ‘probably the most important and far-reaching aviation announcement of the year’
Today’s announcement by National Air Traffic Control (NATS) that it proposes to reconfigure airspace could be more significant that any plans for a new runway. ‘Airspace’ and ‘flight paths’ sound like a technical turn-off but, in my view, this is the most important and far-reaching aviation announcement of the year.
Why? It could be airport expansion by the backdoor in a big way as it might result in a 20% increase in the number of flights which can use existing runways. And, if done badly, could generate the sort of huge popular protests that have taken place in Frankfurt since flight paths were changed to accommodate the new runway in 2011.
Let me explain. NAT’s proposals are part of the Single European Sky Agreement, known as SESAR. SESAR aims to create much more coordination between the air traffic control systems of individual European countries. These would increase efficiency and potentially cut CO2 emissions.
So far, so good. But, according to the NATS report published today on the Gatwick airspace, it would enable a plane to land at Gatwick every minute. Currently the gap between aircraft needs to be 90 seconds. Without the hint of a second runway, this could increase capacity of the airport by around 20%.
But there is more. NATS has said it will be revising all the take-off and landing routes. That could mean some areas become free of planes while others are under a flight path for the first time. And that’s where the protest will start. People are more disturbed by planes when they’ve never had them before. And they feel cheated because they can reasonably argue they never expected to be under a flight path. It is this situation which has seen up to 5,000 people occupy the terminal in Frankfurt every Monday night ever since the fourth runway opened in 2011.
Potential noise ghettos
However, it could even be worse than this. Increasingly, NATS has the computer technology to guide planes much more precisely. This is why they are talking about having stacks in the sea and then guiding aircraft to the airport in one or two continuous paths. That will relieve many people who currently get aircraft but it will be turning the new areas into noise ghettos.
NATS is aware of this and is talking about respite periods by varying the approach paths to airports (and the take-off routes). That would be welcome but it still potentially leaves many communities experiencing a lot of aircraft noise for the first time.
NATS is also talking about quieter planes and steeper descent paths. All very but I’m not sure they will be enough to stem the torrent of protest new flight paths will unleash.
A few years back NATS were badly hurt when they tried to vary flight paths around Luton and Stansted. They backed off. This time they are trying to still the protests about consulting on the concept of airspace changes first, long before publishing the new flight paths.
They are starting with Gatwick and London City but hope to cover the whole county by 2020, including Heathrow where, according to the European Commission, over 725,000 people leave under the flight paths.
The explosion waiting to happen could relegate the fight over a new runway in London and the South East. And, nationwide, the streamlined system could significantly increase the number of planes using our airports.
The EU is giving NATS little choice but to try and introduce these changes. But they are playing with very high stakes. Get it wrong and they could be an explosion of protest across the UK.